Relationship advice for PR practitioners

Relationships are in the DNA of PR – in fact, the name itself indicates the function manages relations with publics.  But the priority in PR practice is largely on writing skills rather than interpersonal ones; whilst although academic definitions and literature highlight two-way communications, they largely omit what is required to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships.

Most of the focus on communications skills is still primarily on an ability to write.  Even here, the emphasis is usually on informing, or persuading, rather than engaging, initiating a response or building a relationship.  Rhetoric rules rather than dialogic communications.

Perhaps it is presumed that PR practitioners are competent in relationship building and don’t need to learn relevant craft skills in the same way that they need to learn to write for the media or other publics.  Indeed, one of the claims made to explain the ongoing gender shift of the occupation is that women have better people skills.  But is it natural to know how to build professional, multi-dimensional relationships to help organizations manage conflict situations or seek co-orientation with a wide range of individuals or groups over time?

Is it unreasonable to suggest practitioners need relationship counselling rather than relying on a gender stereotype of a friendly nature or outgoing personality?  The relational perspective of public relations offers a good body of knowledge regarding the concept of organization-public relationships, albeit drawing on other fields such as marketing, organizational theory, conflict resolution and interpersonal communication (see Julia Jahansoozi’s excellent review).  This needs to be translated into practical competencies to become recognised as a vital intelligence-based skills set to close the gap between the “friendliness” focus of relationship building in practice and an informed understanding of research and knowledge-based strategies.

There are lots of opportunities for building a competency toolkit – from considering how to establish professional relationships to methodologies for evaluation, ethical frameworks, etc.  Issues arising from the traditional journalist to PR career route need to be considered in relationship terms.  Aspects of openness, acknowledgement of partisanship, and “faux friendship” need to be examined.  Strategies around frenemies and friendlies (Judy Gombita’s great term) could be investigated.

The focus on what is required to develop and maintain professional relationships is of particular relevance to young PR practitioners, based on a recent PR Conversations’ post on mentoring and networking by Alan Berkson and Fred McClimans.  They reference a vital “knowledge acquisition ecosystem”, and relationships are an important way in which culture and practice is developed and corrected.  The reliance of Gen Y on their peer relationships, and other online cultivated contacts, has an impact on the way in which professional relationships may be conceived going forwards.  How this relates to the organization-public relationship would be an interesting area to research further.

Likewise, what are the consequences of a faster cycle of job changes on practitioners’ credibility as the hub of organization-public relations?  Are the contacts primarily personal rather than “belonging” to the client organization?

PR practitioners should also play a key role in providing relationship counselling advice at the strategic level – something that seems to be a pitfall waiting for many CEOs, or is that just British politicians, police and newspaper proprietors?  Surely such a role needs to be based on more than intuition, common sense and previous experience, particularly if PR is to be seen as providing strategic counsel that delivers proven results.

And, if relationships are to be recognised as a central unit of public relations, then we need to engage with methods of analysing, tracking and researching them.  This means qualitative not simply quantitative survey approaches.  Relationships are nuanced and the methods of research we use need to reflect this.  Counting Twitter followers or Facebook likes does not constitute evaluation of organization-public relationships.

We need to consider the challenges as well as the benefits of building relationships and understand issues such as power-imbalance, selfishness and disengagement.

This is a rich channel for PR practitioners that extends their competency beyond the short-termism of generating press coverage or seeking ownership of the digital terrain.  It is not something new, but is an area which seems to be taken for granted so perhaps it is time to foreground this aspect of practice and academic research.   If we are called public relations at the least we ought to be competent in building public relationships.

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15 Responses to “Relationship advice for PR practitioners”
  1. Alan Berkson says:

    Excellent points, Heather. Writing is a skill that can be practiced in a vacuum but learning how to navigate relationships requires interaction with others. While I’m not a PR practitioner I would suggest it requires the ability to *understand* your audience, a skill-set that is ripe for the value proposition of the mentoring relationship.

    -Alan Berkson

    • Alan, I agree with you. I also think more could be done at University and in starting practice to focus on interpersonal skills. For example, a lot of student work is now group based, but there is little attention paid to how to establish good relationships within that group, address conflicts and personality differences and so on. I’m not talking about using Belbin or other such techniques which I’ve seen used with limited success. Rather if students were taught theory and strategies to become more reflective in these early professional relationships (which is what they are), perhaps they’d find group dynamics more interesting and less problematic.

  2. In following what you are saying and what many academics and practitioners give lip service to, I am coming to a view that there is a case for a Public Relations doctorate similar to the medical MD.

    The sheer range and significance of good PR is now well beyond a combined BA and Masters.

    The breadth of expertise needed across so many PR disciples is huge. The need for deep primary research that can be tested and deployed is already daunting.

    There is a lot at stake.

    Should we have diplomats that do not have such a degree? Can BP really survive without such expertise? What kind of competitive edge would the nation and its great enterprises get from such a capability.

    If we just look at the nature of relationships, the DNA of PR, who is doing the ground breaking research? What are the elements of relationships inside organisation? What is it that prompts ‘likes’ and +’s and not purchases? How is it that organisations are able to sacrifice asset and trading value with poor relationships and still employ a ‘Public Relations’ manager?

    What is the PR equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath?

    • That’s an interesting idea David and I think you are right in indicating the value of a practice orientated doctorate. That could have real meat and help address the lack of respect that ongoing in-depth reflective education has in PR. Not so sure about a Hippocratic oath for PR, although ‘do no harm’ is not a bad philosophy for anyone.

  3. Krista says:

    As always, a thought-provoking post, Heather! Knowing how to build relationships and general human social interaction skills are probably needed in more than just the PR field. But it seems many communicators take this for granted and just assume they have the skills to build meaningful relationships. This presents a rich educational opportunity and a way to expand the notion of what PR is and what its potential is for the clients and companies who use it.

    • Krista – I agree with you that these skills at the personal level are not exclusive, but within organisations, who does take responsibility for the strategy and framework of organization-public relationships? I suggest they are all too often left to the individual, or maybe contained in a database somewhere. Is this a core area of organisational competence that should be considered the remit of strategic PR practitioners? I would argue it is probably a more feasible option than seeking dominance of the online environment. As you say, it offers an opportunity for education and also expanding understanding of PR and its potential.

      • Don Radoli says:

        Heather: Interesting post. I share your notion of a more reflective approach to PR and by extension to relationships and human interactions. There is however i historical disconnect between traditional PR (of the promotion PT Barnum kind) and rigorous intellectual approach to the field that you suggest.

        As things stand now, the only credible path to such rigorous and desirable approach would be to link the degree to some of the established social science disciplines like sociology. That would at least ensure addhererence to established social science research methods and practices.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    British police have had an overdose of “relationship counseling advice”. It was an obsession with “touchy feely” PR (as opposed to “feeling collars”) that led to the doom of one police chief after the other in London…. they’d have done much better if they had kept their distance. Sometimes clients need to be told that they require less PR and that they should concentrate instead on doing their job professionally.

    • Paul, I don’t believe that managing professional relationships and doing the job are mutually exclusive, indeed, for senior executives (including PR practitioners) having appropriate relationships with key stakeholders IS part of the job.

      The issue with the Met police was surely that they did not maintain appropriate professional relationships when dealing with News of the World/News International executives. I’m not sure even this approach could be deemed “touchy feely” PR, more like an attempt at press agentry management which backfired big time.

      My post is not arguing for any form of cuddly relationship building, rather I beieve PR practitioners should be educated to understand relationships from a solid knowledge base, rather than intuition. I’m looking for a more dispassionate approach that would enable counselling of executives not to cosy up or develop inappropriate relationships within a robust strategic framework of organization-public relationships.

      Any advice given to clients about distance, closeness or any of the other aspects of relationships at present is not done on any basis other than gut instinct or experience. I believe that to be taken seriously and hence listened to, PR needs better than that. Otherwise we are at the mercy of some exec thinking his best buddy, mate of a mate, family friend, or random dodgy contact is best placed to provide PR support or advice.

  5. Heather
    Great post.

    Sorry to give my book a plug here, but in ‘Effective Personal Communication Skills in PR’ I highlighted how all communications starts between 2 people – and that PR practitioners should think of an ‘individual mass communications model’ – all mass communications starts at an individual level.

    Also, the issue is not just inter-personal but also intra-personal – knowing and managing the voice inside your own head is the most powerful building block and foundation for any successful communications activity.

    So, yes, PR has got to embrace the intra and inter personal to be effective.

    • Thanks Andy – I suppose ‘knowing yourself ‘ is much the same as being reflective and thinking about what you do, how you do it and who you do it with. All communications do start at the individual level, but it is also remembering you’ve got a brain inside your head and an ear on either side as well as a mouth at the front when looking to engage in dialogue rather than simply talking at others.

  6. Halley says:

    Alan and Fred, I agree with you. I also think more could be done at University and in starting practice to focus on interpersonal skills. For example, a lot of student work is now group based, but there is little attention paid to how to establish good relationships within that group, address conflicts and personality differences and so on. I’m not talking about using Belbin or other such techniques which I’ve seen used with limited success. Rather if students were taught theory and strategies to become more reflective in these early professional relationships (which is what they are), perhaps they’d find group dynamics more interesting and less problematic.
    +1

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